How We Got Here. Where We’re Going.

“[A] system of free speech confers countless benefits on people who do not much care about exercising that right.  Consider the fact that, in the history of the world, no society with democratic elections and free speech has ever experienced a famine—a demonstration of the extent to which political liberty protects people who do not exercise it.”

— Cass Sunstein, Conformity: The Power of Social Influences

Nothing is easier than giving in to fear.

Fear—even justifiable fear—can be used by those in power as a pretense for further exertion of control over lives they already substantially influence.  History provides an abundance of examples.

In the present case, the heinous violence we saw at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th has opened the door for a reinvigorated effort by powerful public and private institutions to de-platform, de-monetize, and otherwise suppress speech.  Naturally, the proffered rationale is “safety,” and opportunists are predictably using that reasoning as a way to be as broad as possible in clamping down on speech they find objectionable.

I default to skepticism when facing these sorts of potential anti-speech shifts in cultural or legal norms.  That skepticism also explains why I agree with those who have misgivings over the vigor with which influential entities are restricting speech.  I find myself in the (eclectic, perhaps strange) company of the ACLU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Glenn Greenwald, among others.

The worry here isn’t limited to Twitter’s erasure of President Donald Trump from its platform, which was followed in short order by every other meaningful social network.  These concerns also relate to the suppression of the pre-election New York Post story about Hunter Biden, as well as the selective and collusive destruction of the conservative-leaning Twitter alternative Parler—under the theory that it served to foment and coordinate the Capitol attack, even though, e.g., Facebook played at least as large a role.

This targeting based on politics is troubling enough.  Yet, it was the de-platforming of Trump that most strikingly prompted some of the same anti-speech arguments I’ve been discussing for years.  Specifically, critics dismissing free speech concerns by saying “Twitter (e.g.) is a private company, and can do what it wants.”

I agree.  But there is often a wide gap between “can” and “should.”

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Best of 2020

2020 wasn’t all bad.

I have to say that this was a good year for me personally, demonstrating the value of baseline reclusiveness and living practically as a shut-in even before a pandemic hit.

What seemed to many people to be a nightmarish existence was more or less a lateral move for me.  However, I did save significant time avoiding my heck-ish commute each day—approximately 90 minutes, minimum.  The upshot of this newfound savings is that I finally rededicated myself to this blog.

Ok, “rededicated myself to this blog” is too strong.  Maybe “remembered this blog exists and felt guilty about it” is more accurate.

Things had gotten so sparse ’round these parts that I didn’t even do a best-of piece last year!  That decision wasn’t an oversight.  I just produced so little content that putting together a best-of seemed absurd.

I did better in 2020, authoring 21 pieces of content (not counting this one), all of which published after March, when the pandemic fully “bloomed.”  Of those pieces, here are the handful I liked best:

Untimely Movie Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (5/4) – I’m including this one as sort of a representative example of my recommitment to (EVENTUALLY) getting through the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection.  I managed to get through several entries this year, with more on the horizon.  I’m confident I can finish it at long last in 2021. 

Buy Physical Media (6/6) – Prompted by the sudden rash of digital deletions and warning messages for several series and movies, I wrote this piece as both a defense of free speech and an admonition about the durability of physical media.  It eventually led to a piece that published in the Washington Examiner, which was a personal highlight for me this year.

Destroying Unity Is the First Step (8/11) – In a somewhat prescient post, I noted that a news clip from 1983 discussed something that united people of different races, socioeconomic levels, and political views, but that this very thing had itself become just another divisive topic around which people virtue signal in order to separate themselves from “the other.”  Societal decay abounds.

Two Movies, One Screen (11/2) – Using the “two movies, one screen” metaphor as a jumping-off point, I discussed the political climate surrounding the presidential election, making some broader predictions that looked beyond the actual outcome.

The Worst Possible Outcome (OR: The Baby Hitler Hypothetical) (11/6) – And the inevitable companion piece to “Two Movies, One Screen.”  Here, I detail the election results and match their implications to my previous forecasting.

Overall, it was a decent “comeback” year for this site, unexpectedly bolstered by a bat-borne virus from the Far East.  I hope you enjoyed some of it.  The blog, that is, not the pandemic.  Happy New Year!

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The Worst Possible Outcome (OR: The Baby Hitler Hypothetical)

A few days ago (which feels like weeks at this point), I made some predictions about Tuesday’s election, and I talked about the “two movies, one screen” phenomenon.  That concept is the idea that two people / groups of people can observe the same data, but process that data so differently as to perceive different realities.

Before I get to where we are with our electorate’s competing narratives, let’s review the particular points I made.  My overall, general prediction of a narrow Trump Electoral College win is doubtful at this point, but the enumerated specifics about which I felt confident largely came to pass: Continue reading

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Two Movies, One Screen

The outcome of the 2020 election is obvious.

President Trump has never led in the polls.  What’s more, the deficit he faces is far larger than the one he faced in 2016.  The quiet signs of trouble in key districts that plagued Hillary Clinton aren’t present this time around.  Trump trails in every swing state, sometimes by double digits.  Democrats (or, perhaps more accurately, Trump’s antics) have even made states like Georgia and Texas competitive, and Dems may turn parts of the South blue again for the first time in more than a generation.  Voters will also see Biden as a way to end the chaos that swirls around Trump at all times, and which manifests as the social unrest caused by right-wing agitators in cities across the country.  On top of all of that, Dems have been wildly out-raising and out-spending Republicans, reflecting the desire the country has to vote Trump and company out of office.

Tomorrow night should be a quick, decisive victory for Joe Biden.  Despite concerns around vote-counting that takes days or weeks, none of that will be necessary as Biden amasses more than 270 electors by midnight on November 3rd, and Democrats ride a blue wave to full federal control of Congress and the White House.

The outcome of the 2020 election is obvious.

Pollsters haven’t learned their lesson from 2016, and they don’t account for factors that point to overperformance by Trump.  What’s more, Trump voters are exceptionally “shy.”  Many of them don’t want to trigger insults and harassment from shrill, hectoring progressives by revealing their support for the president.  Some of them intentionally mislead pollsters to undermine media trust even beyond its current all-time low.  And, while rally size isn’t a pure indicator of electoral success, the pervasive contrast in voter enthusiasm between Trump voters and Biden voters highlights a Biden vulnerability.  Moderate and independent voters who otherwise may have been disposed to vote for Biden will vote for Trump due to fears and worry around the widespread vandalism and unrest that marked progressive protests around the country.  On top of all of that, Trump has quietly been shifting voter registration toward Republicans over the past four years—especially in key states. Pollsters haven’t properly accounted for this shift or the shy voter factor, and Trump will stun “experts” again on election night.

In short, Trump will secure close-if-decisive victories in most swing states.  So much so, in fact, that he may not even need Pennsylvania.  Despite concerns around vote-counting that takes days or weeks, none of that will be necessary as Trump amasses more than 270 electors by midnight on November 3rd, and Republicans retain control of the Senate for at least two more years, and the White House for four.

I have been reading and hearing both of these narratives since the summer.

They are mutually exclusive.

In his book Win Bigly, Scott Adams describes a phenomenon he calls “two movies, one screen.”  The idea is that two people (or two groups of people) are observing the same data, but processing the information so differently that they reach entirely different conclusions about reality.

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Destroying Unity Is the First Step

I watched this clip the other day, and it made me ponder how much our culture and our media have changed in just a generation.

 

The message here is obvious.  The Team that Dare Not Speak its Name used to be something that united Washington across racial and political lines, which was no easy feat.  Not only that, but also note that the media didn’t reflexively foment division.  Instead, in the simpler time of 1983, CBS News cheerfully celebrates the fact that the Redskins’ championship pleased Washingtonians of all stripes.

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Washington Examiner Piece on Digital Media and Censorship

I’m shamelessly using this post to promote a piece I wrote for the Washington Examiner.  This is a long-form magazine essay that updates and greatly expands some of the themes that I first discussed in this post from a couple of months back.

The piece discusses the recent rash of edits and deletions of the digital versions of art, the value of free speech and expression, and the cultural forces that seem to applaud the removal of “problematic” art from public view—sometimes including the creators of that very same art.

The article will be behind a paywall for most of you, but, if you’re interested, I hope you’ll access it and give it a read.  Here’s the link:

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/buy-physical-media

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Untimely Movie Review: Risky Business

Risky Business is a weird movie.

It gets a lot of things right, but, even within the context of 80s teenage-themed films, I don’t think it holds up particularly well.  It’s not as entertaining as the John Hughes canon.  It’s not as compelling as Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  I’m not even sure it’s the best movie about high school that Tom Cruise made in 1983!

Ok, maybe it is a lot sharper than All the Right Moves.  Either way, it’s certainly fair to say that Risky Business is the movie that made Tom Cruise a huge star, and it’s rightly remembered as a milestone in that regard.

But the premise of the film is ridiculous.

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30 Facts for Live Aid’s 30th Anniversary

Yesterday was the 35th anniversary of Live Aid. I thought I would reblog this piece I wrote five years ago, with 30 facts about Live Aid on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

The Axis of Ego

Even though I was only seven years old, I could sense that Live Aid was important.

LiveAidCrowdWembleyThirty years ago today, the biggest musical acts in the world performed as part of a single, massive event, unprecedented in scope.  Everyone from Madonna to the Beach Boys to the Pretenders to Paul McCartney helped put on the biggest concert in the history of the planet, before or since.

The strange thing is that I realized just a few days ago that the 30th anniversary was coming up.  The relative lack of fanfare struck me as odd.  Rather than trying to write a comprehensive history about the event, or even an analysis of the concert itself, I thought I would string together 30 facts about Live Aid to commemorate the occasion.

1. Live Aid began as an offshoot of Band Aid, a group of mostly-UK artists who recorded a one-off charity single, “Do They…

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Untimely Movie Review: Chariots of Fire

Watching a Best Picture winner typically leaves me with one of two reactions.  Either, “I completely understand why this won Best Picture,” or “This is a decent / interesting movie, but the field must have been weak that year.”

Chariots of Fire falls into the latter category.

Again, this is not to say it’s a bad film.  Not at all.  It’s good.  But the most memorable thing about it to this day is its synth-driven, wildly anachronistic, Vangelis-crafted score.

Starring a bunch of vaguely familiar faces whose names you probably don’t know, aside from a supporting turn from Ian Holm as trainer Sam Mussabini, and a bit part played by Sir John Gielgud, the film follows a group of British track athletes on their journey to the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.

The two primary athletes are Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson).  The plot focuses on various aspects of their on-track careers, but also on the role religion played in their lives.  Although culturally very English, Abrahams was a Jew who faced anti-Semitism.  Meanwhile, Liddell was a devout Christian whose faith was inextricably linked with his motivation for competing.

In the case of Abrahams, the anti-Semitism he experiences was actually very mild by the standards of a century ago.  It’s largely limited to some moderately offensive comments, the most damning of which aren’t said in his presence.  While that’s certainly not good, as anti-Semitism goes, it provided only a minor obstacle—which makes it something of an odd focal point.

In other words, if someone had tried to keep him from competing in the games due to his faith, that would have seemed like a more relevant element of the story.  As it is, we mostly hear comments along the lines of someone joking (not even to his face) that he probably won’t be in the university choir.

Perhaps I’m just jaded by the ham-handed presentation of bigotry we get in movies today, but the level of anti-Semitism depicted in Chariots of Fire is mostly almost quaint.

Liddell’s faith is much more pertinent to the story, as one plot point is based on the real-life refusal of Liddell to run on Sunday.  In the movie, that prevents him from running in the 100-meter qualifying heat, but the test of his faith under pressure from government officials is the primary dilemma of the second half of the film.

One thing that bumped me during this movie is how unathletic some of these guys look when they compete.  In particular, Ian Charleson’s racing style is bizarre—coming down the stretch, he starts flailing his arms like a drowning man struggling to get to shore.  Granted, running techniques weren’t as advanced in the 1920s (witness the runners having to dig their own footholds prior to racing), but it’s hard to take Charleson seriously as  a world-class sprinter when he looks like he’s going to topple over during the final 10-20 yards of every race.

Overall, Chariots of Fire is a perfectly fine, semi-historically-accurate presentation of a moderately interesting story about the 1924 British Olympic Team.  Yet, like, say, The King’s Speech, I find myself somewhat surprised that it won Best Picture.

Its competition that year in the Best Picture category included Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I can say definitively that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a better all-around movie than Chariots of Fire.  It just isn’t as safe of one.

Speaking of the Academy Awards, John Gielgud coincidentally won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that same night, but not for this film.  Instead, it was his hilarious, deadpan performance as Hudson in Arthur that earned him the honor.

Anyway, as for Chariots of Fire, it’s perfectly acceptable entertainment, with some nice touches in terms of sets and costumes that make the historical races seem more real.  However, it’s not even one of the 20 best films I’ve seen so far in the Warner Bros. 50 Movie Collection.

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Untimely Movie Review: The Shining

The genius of Stanley Kubrick is readily apparent in the opening “segment” of The Shining, in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) painstakingly drives to, arrives at, and participates in an almost-real-time job interview.

The exquisitely slow burn takes the audience through an experience so familiar that it is almost mundane, up until the point where Mr. Ullman asks whether Jack knows about the “tragedy of 1970.”

Between this and “Tony,” Danny Torrance’s imaginary friend, it doesn’t take long for the viewer to understand that something incredibly sinister is at work.  But it is the path that Kubrick uses to get there that is so fascinating.

The Shining incorporates a few pieces we’ve seen before in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection.  Namely, Kubrick (2001 and A Clockwork Orange), Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Scatman Crothers (also Cuckoo’s Nest).  All three work superbly.

So, too, does Shelley Duvall, as Jack’s harrowed wife who was already close to a breakdown even before her husband began chasing her around with an axe.

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